Which brings us to the Golden Rule. This is one of those basic components of human morality that pops up in pretty much every culture - the British Humanist Society even produces a poster with 20 different versions from around the world. The version familiar to those of us with a Christian heritage is the well-known phrase "do to others what you would have them do to you".
So what happens, do you suppose, if you subliminally prime people with the Golden Rule? Perhaps you might expect them to be more open and tolerant of others who are different to them. Well maybe not, if new research from Oth Vilyathong at York University in Toronto is anything to go by.
Along with colleagues Nicole Lindner and Bryan Nosek, Vilyathong set out to see if priming the Golden Rule would make people less homophobic. You might expect so - after all, the basic message is one of tolerance and equality.
But there was an interesting twist to their study. In one version of the test, they used the Christian Golden Rule. In another, they used a Buddhist equivalent, "Never hatred is hatred appeased, but it is appeased by kindness".
They did this online, as part of Project Implicit. And that meant they could test both Christians and Buddhists from around the world.
Well, they found that Buddhists were less homophobic to begin with. Priming them with the Golden Rule - either the Christian or the Buddhist version - had no effect on their level of homophobia.
Same goes for Christians primed with the Christian golden rule. They were more homophobic than the Buddhists, and they didn't become less homophobic after the priming - regardless of whether their homophobia was measured explicitly (i.e. asking them directly) or implicitly (testing the speed at which they can make associations that involve images of same-sex versus different-sex couples).
But, when primed with the Buddhist Golden Rule, Christians became significantly more homophobic (at least when they were asked directly; there was no effect on implicit attitudes). They also reported being more convinced that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice, rather than a fundamental aspect of character.
That's a really surprising result, and one that was the opposite of what they were expecting! The researchers think that it's probably down to that old religious chestnut - fear of outsiders.
There's a lot of evidence that criticism coming from someone outside the group doesn't mollify, but rather hardens attitudes. They suspect that the Christians in this sample took the Buddhist Golden Rule to be an implicit criticism of their intolerance, despite its upfront message of tolerance. And the Christians reacted by ratcheting up their intolerance.
Why didn't the Christian Golden Rule have this effect on Buddhists? Well, perhaps because they were less homophobic to start with. Perhaps it's because many of the Buddhists in their study live in countries where Buddhism is a minority religion - which might make them more sympathetic to other minorities, like homosexuals.
But the effect on Christians has important implications for the ideal of religious tolerance. Although we are frequently told that religions can co-exist peacefully, it's hard to see that happening when even messages of peace and tolerance from one religious group to another can actually serve to increase intolerance.
As Vilyathong and colleagues conclude...
The results suggest that when a tolerant message comes from a religious outgroup figure, it does not increase but instead may decrease tolerance toward another outgroup ... Although the Golden Rule has an important influence on religious believers, its message of compassion may backfire if it is seen as coming from an outgroup source. This suggests that it is not just the message, but also the qualities of the messenger, that will determine the effectiveness of appeals for tolerance.
Vilaythong T., O., Lindner, N., & Nosek, B. (2010). “Do Unto Others”: Effects of Priming the Golden Rule on Buddhists’ and Christians’ Attitudes Toward Gay People Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 49 (3), 494-506 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-5906.2010.01524.x
This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.